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18 September 2023

Laura Kuenssberg’s State of Chaos: a parade of strange and idiotic people

Watching this series about British politicians , you wonder how they made it to the cabinet – or out of their front door.

By Rachel Cooke

There are a lot of irredeemably strange and idiotic people in State of Chaos, Laura Kuenssberg’s series about British politics since 2016 – Matt Hancock is one, Gavin Williamson is another – and looking at them, mouths slightly open as they pretend to listen to her questions, you wonder how they ever made it to the cabinet. Or even, to be honest, out of their front door.

Williamson, as it happens, is my personal, one-man fever dream: a quite terrifying combination of Frank Spencer from Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em and the PE teacher who coached me, aged 13, for a Bronze Survival swimming award (“I have asked my officials to inflate their pyjamas,” I heard a voice just like his say, the last time I had Covid). But at least he and Hancock can claim to have been close to the action. It’s much harder to account for the appearance of Charles Walker, the MP for Broxbourne in Hertfordshire, whose chief contribution so far has been to compare Boris Johnson to one of his beloved dachshunds.

According to Walker, a rosy-faced fellow who loves the film Gladiator, it doesn’t matter how many cushions a dachshund chews, nor how many curtains he pees on. He will always love the little dog because it is just so… What’s the word? The adjective having eluded him, the film moves swiftly on, leaving the viewer in a state of some confusion. I’m not sure which is the more alarming fact: that the biggest compliment even a fan of Johnson’s can pay him is to liken him to a sausage dog, or that I will always wonder now about the state of the famously flashy wallpaper that was installed by the prime minister’s wife, Carrie Johnson, during the couple’s tenure at N0 10.

[See also: Ethnic minority Brexiteers have been vindicated]

Kuenssberg’s most revealing interviewees are all unelected: Simon McDonald, a former permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office; Helen MacNamara, a former deputy cabinet secretary; Cleo Watson, an adviser to Boris Johnson. Her series wants for political big beasts, probably because a lot of these animals (such as Michael Gove) are still busy pretending to run the country.

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But in as much as I’m able to feel anything about most of those on screen – at this point, penetrating the audience’s numbness is Kuenssberg’s single biggest challenge – I suppose that it is still seriously unpleasant to hear about Steve Baker’s cabalist flip-flops (the footwear the arch Brexiteer favoured during a particularly frantic bout of plotting) and the speech Johnson made on the night Britain finally left the EU. (According to Watson, it was about “French knickers and cheese”, but then Dom – Cummings, the crazy blogger who played Predator to the prime minister’s Alien – stole the show by going the full snot with some major blubbing.) In the age of the cluster-f***, it would seem, there’s always more horror to come.

In essence, State of Chaos is Andrew Davies’ House of Cards, minus the thrills and the good-looking actors. Except, you couldn’t make it up if you tried. Laugh along with Julian Smith, a former Tory chief whip, as he gamely describes losing his hair to the stress. Cringe with Amber Rudd, the former home secretary, as she reveals she was told to pretend to look like she’d read Theresa May’s top secret election manifesto at its launch. Picture Carrie Johnson floating around like Lady Macbeth in a floral midi dress, and wonder all over again how a British charity worker called Pen Farthing flew out of Kabul after it had fallen to the Taliban in 2021 on a private plane whose only other passengers comprised 68 cats and 94 dogs.

As for Kuenssberg, what can I say? If I admire her strength, energy and tenacity, I also wonder about her tendency to stare at her mobile phone as if it’s the Key to All Mythologies. (We see this again and again in clips from her time as the BBC’s political editor.) Unlike Michael Cockerell, the absolute master of this sort of political keyhole surgery, she’s still in presenter mode here, talking regularly to camera in her special up-and-down TV voice, and the result is all chase and no analysis. Unlike his films, which may be revisited decades later (I recommend Edward Heath Remembered, currently on the BBC iPlayer), she has given us only a rough first draught, as unsubtle and strangely uncomplicated as some of the grifters who populate it.

State of Chaos
BBC Two,
25 September, 9pm; available on catch-up

[See also: Labour’s position on Europe is slowly emerging]

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